Jazz today remains the music that stays alive through a remarkable alchemy. The best work in the genre is a shape-shifting wonder. On this list, traditions that go back to the jazz roots co-exist with modern pop tunes, and the avant-garde edges of the music blend in fluid ease with tonal beauty.
This list again combats the somewhat stereotypical notion that there is a jazz battle between stuffy museum curators and wild-eyed experimentalists. On the recent season of HBO’s Treme, the battle is made New Orleans-specific as a main character tries to learn more about playing bebop after a career playing mostly traditional jazz and R&B styles. Either way, it’s an artificial conflict among the top players. The center of jazz bridges tradition and innovation so fluently that these players clearly grew up in the mix, not in camps.
There are a couple of trends that might be teased out of this list. Only one record (Mehldau’s Ode on Nonesuch) is on a “major label”. Even Blue Note and Verve have taken turns toward safer material. There is also not much to choose from in thrilling vocal jazz right now. Mainstream singers such as Diana Krall and Esperanza Spaulding (the latter’s Radio Music Society was a very good jazz record that merely sounded like a pop record) did fine work in 2012, but jazz singing remains weirdly handcuffed by “The American Songbook”. Cassandra Wilson released a record that got beyond it, but hardly her best, and the more-than-affable John Pizzarelli covered Tom Waits and Elvis Costello. But these records weren’t quite in my top ten.
On the most positive side, piano trios continue to innovate in amazing different ways—three very different ones are on this list. And great jazz seems now to come from leaders who night play any instrument in the band; this list has leaders on piano, guitar, bass, drums, trumpet, tenor sax, and alto sax. With the US presidential election still ringing in our ears, it’s also worth noting the continuing multicultural trend, with leaders coming in a huge variety of colors and cultures—and with two women in the top ten, neither of whom sings or plays piano (a number that perhaps ought to be larger but, given jazz’s history, this is progress).
Jazz, long ago banished from the pop charts, thrives. Here are some of the year’s riches, presented this year with my very-favorites first.
1Vijay Iyer Trio
Accelerando is simply the best jazz record in recent memory. On this recording, this veteran piano trio—Iyer on piano, Stephan Crump on bass, and Marcus Gilmore on drums—plays with an incredible degree of integration, sounding like it has fully worked out a series of ideas about how a band should deal with rhythm and dynamic interaction in today’s jazz. The music is immensely elastic, but it’s not loose. Rather, the band plays with a roaring, united front of sound, within which the rich tradition of jazz plays out in scintillating conversation. The band’s take on Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature” is a masterpiece, starting with the recognizable piano lick and then moving to a straight melody statement that is syncopated over an idiosyncratic, interlocking pattern that finds Gilmore and Crump mixing funk rhythms with sudden gaps of silence. The improvisations go far afield, however. Other tracks cover Ellington and Henry Threadgill and Rod Temperton, or they are originals that demonstrate a brilliant unity of purpose, as every element of the trio’s round rotates around every other in thrilling choreography.
2Dave Douglas Quintet
If I ranked Accelerando above this crystalline beauty by the great trumpeter, then it is by a hair or less. Be Still is incomparably lovely: a blend of jazz quintet colors, a folk singer’s plaintive clarity, and hymns and other devotional material that have an emotional transparency that is rare in jazz. The unexpected ingredient here is singer Aoife O’Donovan, who puts across these tunes with cool confidence—not like a jazz singer, really, but with a sense of lilt and rhythmic hipness nevertheless. Jon Irabagon is also wonderful on tenor sax, developing his own voice at a quick pace now (and his new records came close to making this list as well). The Douglas original, “Living Streams”, borrows from a tradition Scottish hymn and is one of the most unique and singular musical achievements of the year. But the whole record shines and soothes your soul. Like all the best art, this recording seems to come simultaneously from the history before it and the world around it, yet it also stands as an act of pure imagination that could only have come from the artist himself.
Tim Berne has been making uncompromising jazz beyond boundaries for an entire career, mostly on his own label. Snakeoil finds him on the esteemed ECM label with a new band, a quartet featuring his alto sax, pianist Matt Mitchell (also on the Dave Douglas record, playing very differently but no less well), clarinet work from Oscar Noriega, and drummer Ches Smith. For me, Berne’s work has often elicited admiration but not enough enjoyment: his energy would be high, his imagination fluid, but I felt I needed armor get through more than one song. But this band is beautifully balanced: acid-toned in some places but lushly harmonic in others. The compositions lock and unwind in a rhythm, and not one moment sounds forced, clichéd, or wasted. With six tunes, most of which clock in over 12 minutes, can you believe that it’s a breezy jazz listen? That’s how engaging this slice of “free” jazz is. Berne’s best record ever.
4Mary Halvorson Quintet
Bending Bridges is the second beautiful and urgent recording from Mary Halvorson’s quintet, with trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, saxophonist Jon Irabagon (again), bassist John Hébert, and Ches Smith (again) on drums. The band plays with precision and fire on a series of Halvorson tunes that entertain and tell stories. Every track here sounds like a journey: with repetitions but also fresh horizons, with sweeping vistas and moments of pure road momentum. The leader’s guitar sound is knotty and abrasive, even unmelodic. A bracing flavor. But her tunes and arrangements almost sound like rock songs, so catchy and compelling are they. “All the Clocks (No. 29)”, could convince any jazz skeptic, with its faster-then-slower picked guitar lines almost like a progressive rock song, then the horns building another rush of patterns, some of which speed up and slow down and as well. The improvisations all over Bending Bridges are intelligent and original, never a string of “the standard” jazz licks. A decent part tuneful but a whole dollop adventurous, the Mary Halvorson Quintet is an ideal modern jazz ensemble.
5Rez Abbasi Trio
Rez Abbasi has been so active and so productive in recent years that it seems like you almost have to pencil him into the top ten list in March, just in case he releases anything new in the coming year. And he always does. This debut by his loose and fun trio smacks of a truly fresh appeal—having not a little in common with the very first trio record of jazz star Pat Metheny (Bright Size Life from 1975). Continuous Beat shares with Metheny’s young debut a lively sense of melody and a pulsating groove. Abbasi’s music, to date, has been generously listenable, but this disc goes right at the listener with melody and groove abundant, though never cheaply. “Divided Attention” uses a tricky time signature but doesn’t skimp of propulsion, “The Cure” features a slinky blues melody with a heap of hip backbeat, “Major Major” is a ray of sunshine conjured by a series of radiant chords, and every tune is enlivened by the huge sound of John Hebert’s bass and Satoshi Takeishi’s multi-directional rhythm. You will also listen scores of times to the surprising closing track: a shimmering reharmonization of “The Star-Spangled Banner” for solo acoustic guitar. Abbasi arrives, again.